The Beautifully Illustrated Atlas of Mushrooms: Edible, Suspect and Poisonous (1827)

Two cen­turies ago, Haiti, “then known as Saint-Domingue, was a sug­ar pow­er­house that stood at the cen­ter of world trad­ing net­works,” writes Philippe Girard in his his­to­ry of the Hait­ian war for inde­pen­dence. “Saint-Domingue was the per­le de Antilles… the largest exporter of trop­i­cal prod­ucts in the world.” The island colony was also at the cen­ter of the trade in plants that drove the sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion of the time, and many a nat­u­ral­ist prof­it­ed from the trade in slaves and sug­ar, as did planter, “physi­cian, botanist, and inad­ver­tent his­to­ri­og­ra­ph­er of the Hait­ian Rev­o­lu­tion” Michel Eti­enne Descour­tilz, the Pub­lic Domain Review writes.

Descour­tilz’ 1809 Voy­ages d’un nat­u­ral­iste “chron­i­cles, among oth­er adven­tures, a trip from France to Haiti in 1799 in order to secure his family’s plan­ta­tions.” Instead, he was arrest­ed and con­script­ed as a doc­tor under Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

The expe­ri­ence did not change his view that the island should be recon­quered, though he did admit “the germ” of rebel­lion “must secret­ly have exist­ed every­where there were slaves.” Decour­tilz chiefly spent his time, while not attend­ing to those wound­ed by Napoleon’s army, col­lect­ing plants between Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haï­tien.

In the dense trop­i­cal growth along the Art­i­bonite riv­er, now part of the bor­der between Haiti and the Domini­can Repub­lic, Decour­tilz learned much about the plant world — and maybe learned from some Haitians who knew more about the island’s flo­ra than the French­man did. Res­cued in 1802, Decour­tilz returned to France with his plants and began to com­pile his research into tax­o­nom­ic books, includ­ing Flo­res pit­toresque et med­icale des Antilles, in eight vol­umes, and a lat­er, 1827 work enti­tled Atlas des champignons: comestibles, sus­pects et vénéneux, or “Atlas of mush­rooms: edi­ble, sus­pect and poi­so­nous.”

As the title makes clear, sort­ing out the dif­fer­ences between one mush­room and anoth­er can eas­i­ly be a mat­ter of life and death, or at least seri­ous poi­son­ing. “Fly agar­ic, for exam­ple,” writes the Pub­lic Domain Review, “can resem­ble edi­ble species of blush­ers.” Con­sumed in small amounts, it might cause hal­lu­ci­na­tions and eupho­ria. Larg­er dos­es can lead to seizures and coma. One can imag­ine the num­bers of colonists in the French Caribbean who either had very bad trips or were poi­soned or killed by unfa­mil­iar plant life. Just last year alone in France, hun­dreds were poi­soned from misiden­ti­fied mush­rooms.

To guide the mush­room hunter, cook, and eater, Decourtiliz’s book fea­tured these rich, col­or­ful lith­o­graphs here by artist A. Cornil­lon (which may remind us of the pro­to-psy­che­del­ic sci­en­tif­ic art of Ernst Haeck­el). He alludes to the great dan­gers of wild mush­rooms in a ded­i­ca­tion to “S.A.R., Duchesse de Berry” and promis­es his guide will pre­vent “mor­tal acci­dents” (those which “fre­quent­ly occur among the poor.”) Descour­tilz offers his guide, acces­si­ble to all, he writes, out of a devo­tion to the alle­vi­a­tion of human suf­fer­ing. Read his Atlas of Mush­rooms, in French at the Inter­net Archive, and see more of Cornillon’s illus­tra­tions here.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Dis­cov­er Emi­ly Dickinson’s Herbar­i­um: A Beau­ti­ful Dig­i­tal Edi­tion of the Poet’s Col­lec­tion of Pressed Plants & Flow­ers Is Now Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.